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Creating new Beichuan town that preserves Qiang ethnic culture
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Against a backdrop of dark hills, a giant white billboard with scarlet characters announces: "We shall construct Beichuan well."

It stands in the mountainous Sichuan county that was devastated by the earthquake on May 12, a reminder of the determination of the people to rebuild. This is where the new county-seat town will be built.

In the old town, more than 15,000 people were killed and 4,000 are missing, probably buried. Countless buildings were crushed and toppled.

The plans for the new town are impressive: a bustling center dense with buildings, surrounded by hills and rivers.

The scenic Anchang River flows southward across the new county seat. There are greenbelts on both banks.

In the town, an axis runs from east to west, connecting the cultural center, earthquake memorial park, shopping street of Qiang ethnic products, and a pedestrian street on a bridge.


"Construction of the new county seat will be in full swing in June," said Meng Lei, assistant director of the Shandong Aid-Beichuan Construction Office.

East China's Shandong Province, designated by the central government to support reconstruction in Beichuan, poured about 5 billion yuan (US$733 million) into rebuilding the new county seat.

It also donated another 2.6 billion yuan earmarked for township, rural housing and road construction in the county.

The investment of 7.6 billion yuan is about 80 times the annual financial revenue of Beichuan County, and far higher than the state-stipulated norm of 1 percent of the annual financial revenue of Shandong Province.

Beichuan is China's only Qiang ethnic group autonomous county. Reconstructing a county seat in another place after a natural disaster is unprecedented in the country.

"We have to shift the county seat, because the old county seat sits on a geological fault line, too dangerous for local residents. The old county seat will be used to build a museum to mourn the dead," said Meng.

Li Xiaojiang, a major designer of the new town, said: "Our biggest problem in the layout is how to harmonize a brand-new modern town with its inherited local histories and cultures." Li is director of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, a major designer of the new town.

Li said designers had integrated traditional architectural features of the Qiang ethnic group into many modern buildings.

They will also provide people with meeting places for Qiang ethnic cultures, traditions and social customs.

"Take the construction of the memorial park, the square, and the greenbelts along the streets," he said. "Some sites will be large enough for the Qiang people to dance the Guozhuang, a favorite collective bonfire dance of the Tibetans and Qiang nationalities, allowing them to show respect for nature."

When they started to design the new county seat last October, Li and his fellow designers worried the local culture might be lost in the process of transplanting a mountain-based ethnic group to flat land and hills.

A survey of residents indicated they were pleased with their new home, Li said.

"Yes, we love the mountains. But we cherish more to have us all living together," said Lei Huiqin, 24, who used to run a small clothing store.

"So long as we Qiang ethnic groups gather together, we will be able to pass on the core of our culture."

Spiritual Eden

Reconstructing communities and social structures will take a fairly long time," said designer Li. "We hope our plans will allow the Beichuan people to reconstruct their spiritual Eden."

In the view of contractor Meng Lei, the new county seat is ideally positioned and is a link in the chain stretching from the earthquake memorial park in the old county seat to the tourism zones in Qingpian and Piankoun towns, and to the virgin forest in the end. "The economy will be boosted by business opportunities from the tourism industry and the 1.4 sq km industrial park funded in part by Shandong Province - two wings of the economy," said Meng.

(The author are writers at Xinhua news agency.)

(Shanghai Daily May 14, 2009)

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